In a July 5, 1852, speech, abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass posed a question: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
One hundred seventy years later, musician and spoken word poet Anthony Parker, better known as Wordsmith, is still asking the same question.
At Baltimore’s citywide Fourth of July celebration, Wordsmith will perform selections of Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” and a musical piece, “Made in America,” with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its assistant conductor, Jonathan Rush.
To Wordsmith, performances like this — ones that delve into different complexities such as enslavement and race — are all about embodiment.
“How did Frederick Douglass want this speech to impact an audience? How can I impact an audience in that same regard in this day and time on a day where we’re celebrating? Because I’m talking about a speech that doesn’t celebrate July 4th,” Wordsmith said. “There’s a celebration going on — but also, being Black in America, we can’t always totally celebrate the Fourth because we were not free when America gained its independence in 1776. We were still slaves.”
Preceding the city’s fireworks display, Wordsmith’s performance will be held Monday at 7:30 p.m. at the Inner Harbor’s BGE Pavilion at Rash Field Park.
For the Douglass speech, he’ll mix spoken word with a cappella elements.
“It’s about getting myself into a mode where I can embody that and portray that to an audience where they can feel like, ‘OK, I don’t feel threatened by what I’m hearing, but I know that this is part of our history of America,’” he says.
“Made in America,” which conveys the story of the American dream musically, is a collaboration of hip-hop and classical music with the BSO. With the two genres — one being historically the provenance of white, upper-class audiences and the other with roots tracing back to block parties in predominantly Black neighborhoods in New York City — Wordsmith hopes to “tell stories through the beauty of classical music, hip-hop and urban music, combining these stories together and saying, ‘Yes, these are two different genres. But look how they tell the same story.’”
Over the years, Wordsmith and the BSO have worked to deliver a fusion of classical music and hip-hop to communities across Baltimore, with a special emphasis on reaching younger audiences.
“It feels accessible,” Wordsmith said. “Classical music feels more accessible because of the way it’s being delivered now.”
In 2018, the BSO hired the spoken-word artist to write a new narration for Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals,” sparking a relationship with the orchestra. He then emceed the BSO’s 2018 gala with Cynthia Erivo and became an official artistic partner in September 2020.
Wordsmith was clear from the beginning that he didn’t want to just be a token minority representing an institution for classical music, a field that’s still predominantly white and something the BSO has struggled with in the past.
“I needed to know that my role was gonna be legit — that it wasn’t just gonna be talk, but we were gonna see action. And they’ve done nothing but show action,” Wordsmith said.
Since the start of their partnership, Wordsmith has led and taken part in numerous collaborations with the orchestra, including community performances, educational programs and musical projects in which he re-imagines texts of famous classical works with a hip-hop twist.
“Little by little, we are taking those steps to say, ‘Hey, one of your own is up here in the hall. It’s a safe space to come to. It’s a place where you can learn something,’” Wordsmith said. “Classical music is not a Black form of music — it’s not in our community; we’re not waking up and bumping that in our car. But there’s such a beauty to it that even myself as a Black man, I had come to love it as I was learning music through the years.”
This desire to make classical music more accessible symbolizes Wordsmith’s work to ensure that historically marginalized people have increased access to the resources and opportunities they need to survive and succeed — not just access to elite music halls.
“What I think a lot of people don’t realize — especially if you’re not from Baltimore — is that there are segregated communities here. We have to realize that there’s redlining out here,” Wordsmith said. “Baltimore City is over 60% Black. And in that 60% that’s Black, most of us are underserved. Most of us are single-parent homes. I’m one of them; I’m part of that statistic,” he said, referring to his status as a single parent raising two young sons.
Bridging classical music and hip-hop through his partnership with the BSO is more than just a musical project — it’s about healing and rebuilding communities in Baltimore that have been neglected for generations, he said.
“We can’t throw away my community and other communities out here that are underserved. We can’t just say, ‘Oh well, they don’t exist, so I don’t have to go over there,’” said Wordsmith, who lives between Bolton Hill and Sandtown.
Wordsmith works with BSO OrchKids, a program designed to provide opportunities and equitable access to music and other resources for youth in Baltimore City.
“Music, overall, often helps to make stronger, more dedicated students,” said Allison Burr-Livingstone, the BSO’s senior vice president and chief advancement officer. “We have had longitudinal studies that have shown that those participating in OrchKids have higher attendance rating and stronger scores compared to their other Baltimore City school peers.”
Wordsmith prides himself on the amount of work he puts into his community, both musically and nonmusically.
“Fifty percent of my life is spent writing a ton of music, performing a ton,” he said, “but the other 50% is me being a dad, being in my community and helping the next generation of leaders and musicians.”